The Master Plan: How Hill Tea Partiers See the Budget Fight Unfolding

To many Republicans, and all Democrats, the House GOP's demand to defund Obamacare or shut down the federal government is bad strategy. But that's not how the Tea Party sees it

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, center, speaks at a news conference with conservative congressional Republicans at the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 19, 2013

For one day, in one place, all was right in the United States Congress.

“A day of victory,” declared Mike Lee, a Republican Senator from Utah, standing on a media stage in the Capitol, surrounded by true conservatives. All were early supporters of Lee’s quixotic campaign to force a final showdown over Barack Obama’s health care law, one that could shutter the federal government or trigger national default if Democrats don’t cave. Until last week, top congressional Republicans derided the idea as a pipe dream. Now, with just 10 days until a government shutdown, it is the official House Republican position. And so the eight Representatives and two Senators were taking a triumphant victory lap, a day before the full House is expected to pass their plan in a Friday vote. “Conventional wisdom in Washington said this day was impossible,” rhapsodized Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

Elsewhere in the Capitol, Republican Senators were huffing that the effort was pure fantasy. “Everybody knows we can’t win this fight,” grumbled Utah’s Orrin Hatch. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, a reliable cheerleader for conservative doctrine, compared the architects of the defund plan to kamikaze pilots. Senior strategists warned that sparking a shutdown over a lost cause was a good way to hand Democrats the House.

But that is not how the unofficial congressional Tea Party caucus sees it. To them, there is plenty of time to play ping-pong with budget proposals over the next 11 days. The notion that Republicans would bear the blame for the economic fallout is, to the insurgents’ eyes, a talking point parroted by the liberal media. And if a shutdown ensues, they say, the blame would fall on Obama and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, for defying American voters who dislike the law. “We believe we have taken a compromise position,” said Idaho Representative Raúl Labrador, explaining that his group had dropped its insistence on a full repeal of the President’s signature legislative accomplishment as a condition of funding the government.

The press conference was like an alternate reality from the rest of Washington. All the accounts of fissures opening within the Republican ranks? Nonsense. “Today you see unity,” said second-term Representative Tom Graves, the 43-year-old Georgian who authored the House proposal to link defunding Obamacare with the so-called continuing resolution, which Congress must pass to keep the government running in the absence of a functional appropriations process. Speaker after speaker lavished praise on House Speaker John Boehner. And why not? Once cool to the tactic, Boehner buckled this week to the will of his members, scheduling a defunding vote that will eat up valuable floor time. “This is Boehner 2.0,” said Arizona Representative Matt Salmon, who served with the Speaker in the 1990s.

To these Republicans, the latest round of budget brinkmanship isn’t a matter of tactics or strategy in pursuit of a cleverly disguised goal. You just take a stand and let the chips fall where they may. “Why speculate on what Prince Harry might do?” said Kansas Representative Tim Huelskamp. Red-state Democrats like Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, who is up for re-election in 2014, might peel off under the strain of a perilous vote, Huelskamp suggested. Obama, who has already signed several bills delaying or altering aspects of the Affordable Care Act, might do so again. The GOP strategy had worked, so why look ahead to the challenges next week might pose? Even savvy play-callers like Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, Buckeye State Congressman Jim Jordan said, only script the game’s opening drives.

Despite the supposed uncertainty, most members believe it is fairly clear how the next act of this drama plays out. On Friday, the House seems certain to pass the defund legislation by a strong majority. Then, as even Cruz admits, Reid will strip the defund provision from the House measure. “Any bill that defunds Obamacare is dead,” Reid said Thursday. “Dead.” Reaffirming its position, the White House blasted out a formal Statement of Administration Policy on Thursday promising a veto. By the middle of next week, just days before the deadline, the Senate will ship a clean funding measure across the building. At that point, House Republicans will have to decide whether to support a bill to keep the government running — or shoulder the burden of shuttering it.

That’s where things get complicated. Sometime during the last days of September, Boehner will likely have to try to persuade his members to support a clean funding bill. One argument he may make is that in a few weeks, Republicans can use the need to lift the U.S. debt ceiling as a leverage point to extract fiscal reforms, as they did successfully in 2011. But this time the backbenchers may not go along. “I don’t follow that reasoning,” Huelskamp says of the notion that the debt limit is a better fight to pick. A potential default could have even greater economic consequences than a partial shutdown, exposing the GOP to deeper public fury.

Huelskamp predicts that 60 to 70 of the 85 co-signers of the Graves resolution would refuse to back a funding bill that doesn’t at least delay Obamacare. That would force Boehner to violate the so-called Hastert Rule, which requires any bill brought to the floor to have majority GOP support, and pass the measure with a few dozen Democratic votes. Whether it happens on Sept. 30 or two weeks after that, House GOP leaders may be forced to abandon their Tea Party faction to avoid imperiling a fragile economy. Even the most ardent conservatives realize the risks at play.

“Shutdowns are bad. Shutdowns are not worth it,” Lee said in his triumphal huddle with Tea Partyers on Thursday. “This law is not worth a shutdown over.” But the Utah Republican wasn’t suddenly realizing the flaws in his strategy; he was imagining himself in Obama’s shoes, wondering whether the President would face “reality.” Outside the Capitol Hill media studio, around Washington and across the country, Republicans are wondering the same of Lee.